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Gender neutral language – a short introduction

"Him", "Her" and "They" in scrabble tiles over a pink, turquoise and blue background

One of the aspects of promoting inclusion that the u3a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) team talk about is the adoption of gender-neutral language (GNL). This is becoming more widespread in speech and written media and we have produced this short article to introduce GNL and explain why it is important. We hope you find it useful.

What is GNL?

Put simply, GNL is a way of referring to people without being gender-specific.

Can you give me some examples?

gender-specific term                                              gender-neutral term


policeman                                                                  police officer

chairman/woman                                                    chair

actress                                                                       actor

fireman                                                                      firefighter

manning the desk                                                   staffing the desk

businessman                                                             business person

spokeswoman                                                           spokesperson

waiter/waitress                                                         server

“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen…”              “Good evening, everyone…”

Why do we need to do this?

The problem with gender-specific language is that it makes assumptions, and reinforces stereotypes, e.g., people who put out fires are men, people who work as nurses are women, and so on. If we speak of a surgeon or a professor, many people will visualise a man in these roles, because they may, throughout their lives, have internalised elements of societal/institutionalised sexism, going back thousands of years, which traditionally allocates perceived high-value roles to men, thereby denying them to women.

So if we want to be inclusive, GNL provides a quick, easy and positive way of recognising and affirming that all roles in society are equally open to people of all genders.

“All” genders? Aren’t there only two?

Some people identify as non-binary, i.e., neither male nor female, and may ask to be referred to using a gender-neutral pronoun, often “they”. Complying with this request shows respect for that person and is positively inclusive. You may have noticed that in some organisations, many staff now state their preferred pronoun (she/her, he/him, they/them) next to their signature.

I’m really not allowed to say “fireman” any more?

This isn’t about telling people what to do. It is part of the important conversation about things we can all do to make everyone feel included, and the first step is to encourage everyone to talk about it, and to be reflective about their own choices of words and behaviours. After a while, using GNL starts to become second nature, and we wonder what the fuss was about!